It's not every day you meet a college sophomore who serves burgers at the local McDonald's drive-thru just to put herself through college and graduate with a degree in quantitative economics. But in light of recent tuition hikes and the threat of some student loan rates doubling in less than a week, that's exactly what 18-year-old Hayley Hohman -– an Eastern Washington native and Washington State University "Cougar" — is doing to fund her final years of college.
I know what it's like to be in Hayley's shoes. As someone who once worked the drive-thru window at our neighborhood McDonald's, just a few miles north of where Hayley works now, that is exactly what I had to do to put myself through college, too.
More than two decades later, I am still paying off my student loans. Just like Hayley — and the 12 million college students like her who are forced to take out loans — I understand firsthand the challenges students face when it comes to putting themselves through college. My mom dropped out of college after her dad passed away — and many years later, I was grateful to become the first in my family to graduate from college and be able to access a federal loan to go to graduate school.
But it's far more difficult now than it ever was before — especially when state budgets are being cut, college tuition is going up and the president and Senate Democrats refuse to act on the impending rise of student loan interest rates in the days to come. On July 1, students and families all across this country will see interest rates for new federally subsidized student loans double if the Democrats who run Washington fail to act. And so far they haven't.
Just last month, House Republicans passed The Smarter Solutions for Students Act, which would prevent federal loan interest rates from doubling, and take Washington politics out of students' wallets.
But even with the deadline looming, Democrats have not acted. In fact, President Obama threatened to veto the bill and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said with unequivocal conviction, "I am not looking for a compromise." What they haven't said, though, is far more important: their failure to compromise is putting students in danger of not being able to attend college.
It is students like Hayley who will pay the price for Democrats' inaction if student loan interest rates double. Not only have her academic scholarships expired, but like most students at American public universities, her tuition has already increased by over 16% in just the past year alone. As the oldest of four children — all of whom plan to go to college in the foreseeable future — her mother is currently working to finish her Bachelor's Degree in nursing so she can help put her kids through school. With the cost of college going up, Hayley — like many other students — will be forced to take out loans to pay for school. And if the Democrats allow loan interest rates to go up, she may not be able to afford to finish college.
With student debt at an all-time high, it is easy to see why this is so problematic. According to a recent study conducted by Fidelity Investments, 70% of those in the class of 2013 graduated with some kind of debt, averaging over $35,000 per student. Over 60% of college students nationwide borrow annually to help cover the cost of college, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports that today there is $1 trillion in total outstanding student loan debt in the United States. And with the economy still struggling to expand, it's harder than ever for recent college graduates to find jobs and pay off their student loans.
That's why raising student loan interest rates is, without a doubt, the worst thing we could do to college students right now. We're elected to Congress to help the people we represent — to make it easier for them to go to college, receive an education, and find a job once they graduate. That's why House Republicans acted, but by refusing to compromise on student loans, the president and Democrats are doing just the opposite.
Despite the many years that separate Hayley and me, our shared stories — of Eastern Washington roots, long McDonald's workdays, and the determination to put ourselves through school — are strikingly similar. When I was young, my parents told me the same thing Hayley's told her: higher education is an investment from which I would benefit long after I collected my diploma. Nothing could be more true.
To receive an education at one of America's pre-eminent colleges or universities is, by far, one of the greatest opportunities of living in this country. Republicans have fought to make sure more students like Hayley can afford to go to college. We've acted to prevent their rates from doubling. Now it's time for Democrats to join us.